Slow population growth has been a major focus for Tuolumne County business and government leaders over the past year.
In response, Dick Pland, chairman of the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, George Segarini, president of the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce, and Larry Cope, director of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, shared their observations and recommendations to the problem of stagnant population growth during an informal discussion with The Union Democrat recently.
Segarini said he became concerned about the county’s slow population growth after reading the results from the 2010 U.S. Census, which showed the county grew by slightly more than 1 percent over the previous 10 years. Subsequent population estimates have even shown a decline in population in the past two years.
“That’s not good for business in the community, it’s not good for government and it’s not good for schools, that’s for sure.” Segarini said. “So I thought, let’s get some folks together and talk about it and see what we come up with.”
In response, he invited Pland, Cope and a dozen other local business and government leaders to join a working group aimed at reversing the trend.
The main causes for slow or declining population were found to be lack of support for business and industry, lack of competitive infrastructure, lack of diverse demographics, lack of affordable housing and a perception that the county is not “business friendly.”
The group has since taken steps to address each of these issues.
At an estimated 55,000 residents, Tuolumne County’s rate of population growth is a far cry from what it has been in the past 30 years. The local population grew from roughly 34,000 in 1980 to 49,000 in 1990.
Pland said things were booming locally in the 1980s and 1990s, driven by skyrocketing real estate prices in the Bay Area and the subsequent migration of residents to the country. Homeowners could cash out and buy a much more affordable house in Tuolumne County.
“They could buy the kind of house they wanted or get it built up here and still have a lot leftover,” Pland said. “And that really fed the construction industry.”
Cope said that while the 1980s boom won’t be coming back, there are a number of ways to improve the local economy in a sustained way.
He said broadband Internet is a key driver of future development because many firms are hiring high tech contractors who work from home and aren’t constrained by a traditional office.
“If you don’t have broadband connectivity, you’re swimming about 15 feet behind the boat,” Cope said. “Because you’re just not going to be able to do business without some kind of enhanced connectivity.”
A recent Chamber of Commerce survey showed steady improvement in the business community’s impression of the county government’s efforts to cut red tape.
“That’s not by accident, that was purposeful and (County Administrator) Craig Pedro deserves a lot of credit,” Segarini said.
Additionally, the county has OK’d 2,300 parcels of land that are ready for developers and investors to start building on.
“When things break loose, we’re ready to run,” Pland said.
Cope said the housing market in the Mother Lode is likely near the bottom, however he said it is unclear how long it will take for property values to recover as problems with financing and a surplus of houses continue to dog the market.
“I think that will continue to hold prices low, but I think we’re at the bottom,” Cope said.
Over the past year, the median purchase price of a home in Tuolumne County has been at the $170,000 level.
Expansion of the county’s health care services was also a key point of discussion.
Pland said Tuolumne County’s older population and its reputation as a popular retirement spot makes it an ideal location for a growing health care infrastructure. He touted expansions to Sonora Regional Medical Center’s orthopedic surgery wing as an example of growing medical services.
Cope said medical facilities are ideal revenue generators because they create good paying jobs and bring in a lot of money to the county from outside in the form of insurance or medicare payments.
Segarini said the expanded medical services can be fueled by current and future training opportunities at Columbia College.
Cope said that the market is flooded with job seekers who possess four-year degrees and businesses are attracted to two-year training programs.
All three men were encouraged by recent efforts taken from all levels of the community to improve on key areas of the economy.
“One thing we must always remember is that economic development and job creation is a long term process,” said Cope.